Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). THE ROBUSTNESS OF APTITUDE EFFECTS IN NEAR-NATIVE SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30(04), 481–509.
In their study “The Robustness of Aptitude Effects in Near-Native Second Language Acquisition”, Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2008) investigated individuals who had learned Swedish as a second language (L2) either in childhood or adulthood. Their aim was to find out whether a high level of language aptitude (i.e. language talent) affects how likely the two groups (early and late L2 learners) attain native-like levels of proficiency in their L2.
The researchers predicted that a high level of language aptitude would only be a predictor of success in Swedish (i.e. how native-like they were in their L2) in the late learners, but not in the early learners. The reason why they predicted that a high level of aptitude would only “help” the late L2 learners is that they work with the idea that early language learners are at an advantage when learning second languages anyway (because they are young). In other words, children don’t need “help” (here, in the form of language aptitude) like adults do: learning an L2 for children comes naturally, according to Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson. In order to investigate the effect of aptitude on early versus late learners, the authors used language aptitude tests (developed in Swansea, Wales, largely by Paul Meara), and various tests to examine proficiency levels in Swedish. In total, Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam investigated 42 highly proficient L2 speakers of Swedish (Spanish was their L1; 31 were early learners, whereas 11 were late learners). Fifteen native speakers of Swedish comprised the control group against which L2 proficiency was measured.
As predicted, their findings showed that the language aptitude scores had a greater effect on predicting the proficiency levels in the late L2 learner group than in the early L2 learner group. Surprisingly, their findings also showed a small but significant influence of aptitude on early L2 learners. In brief, the authors conclude that individuals who have a high language aptitude are better equipped to learn an L2 in adulthood than individuals who have less aptitude, and that aptitude might even “help” children who acquire an L2.
However, there are two ways in which their results can be viewed critically. Firstly, aptitude runs the risk of circularity. Perhaps the “best” L2 learners improved their aptitude because they had indeed become very proficient in their L2, rather than aptitude aiding them in becoming very proficient. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the causal role aptitude plays in L2 acquisition (whether it be in young or in late learners), when other potential predictor variables are not investigated. Factors such as motivation have often been reported to influence level of proficiency in an L2, and, if such factors are not likewise examined, it is essentially impossible to determine whether they too may have affected the proficiency levels reported in the late L2 learners; or, indeed, whether aptitude and motivation are highly correlated to begin with, and hence it may not be aptitude which is the driving force behind high proficiency levels in a late learned L2, but rather motivation (or something else).
All that said, the findings give compelling reason to further examine the role aptitude plays in predicting individuals’ success in learning languages both during childhood and in adulthood.
Mariana Esmeriz and Esther de Leeuw